The First U.S. Nuclear Power Plant Licensed in Three Decades

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Are Nuclear Plants Safe? Image by Tobin

Does nuclear power within the United States have a future? Two new nuclear power reactors have been approved for the Vogtle facility in Georgia, so it appears the answer is yes, at least for the moment, but the question still remains whether new technology and faster licensing meets all the expectations and requirements of nuclear inspectors. Can the industry provide safe power with lower costs? That is the real question, so what is happening now?

Just 11 months after the nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted 4-1 for approval of the construction and operating license for two new nuclear plants in United States at an estimated $14 billion. And, after more than thirty years since the Three Mile Island accident, the NRC is moving cautiously forward with the first in a list of permits filed by U.S. utilities. So, who is the lucky utility, and which nuclear vendor are they using?

Southern Company

The corporate headquarters of Southern Company is based in Atlanta, Georgia. This group is one of the largest generators of electricity, producing 42,000 megawatts, in the United States. Comprised of four electric utilities; Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power and Mississippi Power, Southern Company services more than 4.4 million retail customers over a 120,000 square-mile service territory. Southern Nuclear is the licensed operator for three nuclear generating plants: Hatch, Farley and Vogtle, each with multiple generating units. Plant Vogtle was built with an option of expansion from two units to four, and it is this expansion that the NRC has approved. The new units are light-water Westinghouse AP1000 technology, and are the first Generation III+ reactors to receive Design Certification from the NRC.

The Theory Behind Nuclear Power Simplification

As the world watches at the brink of a potential nuclear industry rebirth within the U.S., concern still exists over the safety risks of the new generation of nuclear power plants, and the NRC vote does reflect that continued concern.

AP1000 Passive Containment Cooling: Image Courtesy of Westinghouse Electric Comp. LLC

In theory, by simplifying the design of nuclear power plants, manufacturers will thereby reduce maintenance and construction costs. Through simplification, the footprint or size of the plant is reduced, thereby reducing the size requirements of the seismic structure, which can impact costs significantly, as seismic structures can cost three times the amount of non-seismic structures. Add to this multiple levels of defense for accident mitigation, including passive safety-related systems, and there you have it – the potential for a safe nuclear power plant.

The key to the next generation of nuclear power plants, a hard lesson learned from Fukushima, is passive safety-related systems. Natural driving forces such as gravity flow, natural circulation and convection, which do not rely on safety-grade support systems or active components, such as diesel generators, for safe shutdown. So, what are the safety features for the Westinghouse AP1000 and how does it work? This reactor is suppose to have all the technology and safeguards necessary to avoid a meltdown like the one at Fukushima, so let’s take a look at the basics.

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